Berry Pilaf (Berry Pulav)

Berry Pilaf (Berry Pulav)

The restaurant where this pilaf is served has been in existence since 1923. It is a Bombay (Mumbai) landmark. The original owner, a Zoroastrian called Rashid Kohinoor, came from Iran and started out serving Iranian dishes. His son, Boman, married a Parsi, an Indian Zoroastrian, and she added many local Parsi dishes to the menu. A third generation heads the kitchen today.

It was Boman, 90 years old, who took us to our seats and offered us a fresh lime soda on a very hot day. ‘As they say, it will “bit the hit” [beat the heat]’ – one Indian with an accent mocking other Indians with worse accents. Indians do that all the time. He laughs boisterously. He jokes around and is full of stories. I ask him for the berry pilaf recipe. He laughs again and tells us that the British Ambassador (he probably meant the American Ambassador) once asked him for the same recipe and he answered, ‘If you give me the recipe for Coca-Cola, I will hand over the recipe for berry pilaf.’ I never did get the Persian–Indian recipe from him, so I have created my own version, and without the chicken meatballs they add to it. At the restaurant this pilaf, called Chicken Berry Pulav, is served with meats, but I have left those out. I do not recommend this restaurant to vegetarians. Just use this recipe to make my aromatic, yellow and white vegetarian version of their great, signature dish.

The berry used here is the tiny Iranian barberry or zareshk, sold by Indian and Persian grocers. If you cannot find it, use dried cranberries. The final flavours are sweet and sour. As there is expensive saffron in it as well, I often make this pilaf for a dinner party. I find that it goes very well with aubergine, spinach and paneer dishes.

For how many? Serves 4-6

Ingredients

  • 475 ml measure of best quality basmati rice from India
  • 1 tsp saffron threads
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 3 tbsp very hot milk
  • about 30 g barberries or dried cranberries
  • 3 tbsp olive or peanut oil
  • 1 large onion, peeled and cut in half lengthways, then into fine half-rings
  • 1½ tbsp salt
  • 5 cardamom pods
  • 4 cm cinnamon stick
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 cloves
  • 3 tbsp melted butter

Instructions

Wash the rice in several changes of water. Put in a bowl, cover generously with water and set aside to soak for 3 hours.

Combine the saffron and 1 tablespoon of the sugar in a mortar and pound together so you have a powder. Put in a small bowl. Add the hot milk, stir, then set aside for 3 hours. 

Rinse the berries a few times and leave to soak for 20 minutes. Drain and pat dry.

Put the oil in a medium frying pan and set over a medium high heat. When hot, add the onion and cook for 5 minutes,or until it starts to brown. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue cooking until it is reddish-brown. Add the drained berries and the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Stir once or twice, then remove from the heat.

Preheat the oven to 160ºC/gas mark 3. 

Bring about 2.5 litres/4½ pints water to a rolling boil. Add the salt, cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaf and cloves. Stir once and add the rice. Let it cook in the boiling water for about 5½ minutes, or until it is three-quarters cooked but still has a thin, hard core. Drain in a colander.

Working quickly now, spread 1 tablespoon of the melted butter in a medium ovenproof pan. Spread half the rice over it. Spread another tablespoon of the butter, plus half the saffron mixture and half the onion-berry mixture and some of its oil on top of the rice. Spread the remaining rice on top of the first layer. Pour the remaining tablespoon of butter over it, followed by the remaining saffron mixture and onion-berry mixture. Cover tightly with foil and a lid and bake in the oven for 30 minutes. 

Remove and let the pan sit undisturbed for 10 minutes. Toss the rice gently to mix before serving.

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